Finding the Solution For Women in Big Law

When we talk about women in the legal market, it’s critical to recognize that the problem doesn’t stem from one individual concern, but rather complex, fundamental challenges. It’s not simply a question of equal pay or flexible hours or structural barriers or sexism alone – it’s the more overarching, systemic issues that are forcing women to make difficult choices about their legal careers.

A recent Big Law Business article examines why women leave their large law firms – and how more often women are choosing to start their own law firms instead. The article cites the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms, which reported 157 minority and women-owned law firms in 2016, up 33 percent from 2013. More than half of those are women-owned. It’s interesting that so many women are abandoning the current system that is so ingrained in big law.

But hanging your own shingle isn’t an option or an interest for everyone, and it doesn’t ultimately address the problems that drove women out of their firms. I think back to the reasons I decided to leave big law. I didn’t feel overwhelming discrimination, and I do feel like opportunities were given to me. Generally, I was given the same opportunities as my male peers, put on the “good deals,” etc. At both of my law firms, I had no problem finding formal and informal mentors, and incidentally my two greatest mentors were both men, who chose to take me under their wing and train me to work with their most important clients. I never worried about my path, my ability to succeed, or my ability to be promoted. In short, I felt very much that partnership was mine for the taking.

What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that I did not have a balanced life. I was being encouraged to bill more and more time, to spend more and more time in the office, and beyond that, I was being asked to spend so much of my precious non-work time entertaining clients and prospective law firm laterals. I was told that this is what everyone does to make partner. I was single at the time, and I was becoming nervous that I was going to remain so. When I first approached the head of my group telling him I didn’t think this path was for me, after the requisite “you can do this, just stick with it—this is the hardest part,” he allowed me to go on a four month externship to a non-profit to “recharge” before returning back to my old job. I didn’t say no to getting paid a big law salary and working non-profit hours, but I knew it wasn’t going to solve my issue. He essentially gave me a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

In contrast, my close friend, who is now a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm, and has been for years, approached the head of her group when she was a mid-level associate and said something similar to what I had said. The head of her group asked what it would take to make her feel more comfortable staying. She said she didn’t want to travel anymore. She was honest about the fact that she didn’t feel like she was ever going to meet someone, get married, or have kids, because she was constantly on the road. So the partner told her he would only staff her on deals that required no travel. Furthermore, he told her he didn’t care from where she worked, offering her a little more flexibility. As she described it to me, this was the first time she realized that she could do the job and also have a family. That was seven years ago now. In that time, she made partner, got married, had three kids and helped launch a new office of her firm.

The solutions we provide have to be responsive to the actual problems. My firm dealt with my complaint by offering up a solution that was used in the past for someone who had burnt out and needed a break. I hadn’t burnt out—I just needed something different. It wasn’t responsive to my request, and therefore didn’t succeed. My friend’s solution was created for her, and gave her what she specifically needed. It allowed her to stay and succeed. Mine just pushed off the day I was going to leave.

So when I finally decided to leave practice, like so many other women I know, it wasn’t because I didn’t think partnership was attainable. It was because I had decided I didn’t want it. I had plenty of mentors at the firm, but none of the women were people I aspired to become. There were certainly successful, happy, female partners at my firm with families and successful marriages, but not in my practice group, and that’s what I needed to see.

Retaining anyone at a law firm is dependent upon that person seeing people at the firm who they can imagine becoming. Women in an organization don’t simply want to see women at the top. They want to see women who have the things they want, whether it’s a spouse or partner, kids, or just general flexibility to have a life outside of work.

Luckily, finding these solutions continues to be a priority for many in the legal industry. I witnessed this firsthand when I participated in the Women in Law Hackathon, organized by Diversity Lab. I was honored to give the keynote address at that event, and I was so excited and inspired to hear all the amazing and innovative ideas the participants came up with. They transcended things attempted in the past, some of which simply gave lip service to the issue, and have the ability to truly transform the legal sphere. All the ideas presented were concrete, tactical solutions that we can put in place immediately, and many of them would apply outside of the legal arena as well. And it was encouraging to see people dedicated to making a change not just talking about change.

I’m thrilled that Bloomberg Law is again partnering with Diversity Lab on the Women in Law Hackathons in 2018. The first hackathon will run from February to June, in partnership with Harvard Law School Executive Education, while Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law will host a second session running from July through November. I look forward to seeing what creative ideas are developed to continue increasing diversity and inclusion throughout our industry.

Melanie Heller is vice president and chief of staff for Bloomberg Law. This post has been adapted from Heller’s keynote address at the 2016 Women in Law Hackathon.